The British Hospitality Association (BHA) is pressing the Department of Health (DoH) to simplify and standardise tender documents, some of which run to over 2,000 pages.
The BHA's contract catering panel claims the relatively low number of bids being submitted for NHS contracts is down to the cost of completing the documents.
In many cases, it believes documents are deliberately over-complex to dissuade private contractors from bidding.
"The pre-tender document alone is often so time-consuming to complete that an application is not worthwhile," said Jim Cartwright, the panel's chairman, and managing director of Shaw Catering. "One specification was over 2,000 pages long - another was just 12 pages."
The panel met recently with the DoH to tackle the issue. It is now compiling a more detailed set of proposals to put to the department.
The BHA would like to see an element of standardisation in requirements so that contractors do not have to repeat information each time it applies to a contract.
One idea under consideration is the creation of a central register of contractors deemed suitable for NHS work.
"Rather than contractors having to establish their credentials each time they bid for a new contract, there would be a central list - which, if necessary, could be updated each year like an MOT - from which contractors who meet NHS requirements could be drawn," said Phil Phillips, BHA general secretary.
Also discussed at the meeting was the advertising of tenders and tender specifications, the effects of transfer of undertakings regulations, evaluation of tenders and monitoring of contracts.
Six-monthly meetings have been set up with the DoH to monitor progress and flag up new issues.
But it is not only NHS contracts where there is a problem. Over-complex tender documents are a feature of many public sector contracts.
Indeed, the panel's meeting with the DoH followed one held recently with the Department of the Environment, which had expressed concern to the BHA about the low level of interest from private contractors in many local authority contracts.
Tim West, managing director of contractor High Table, told Caterer that much of the information requested was basic. "If we did not comply with health and safety requirements, for example, we wouldn't be in business," he said.
"Essentially there are three pages that are necessary - a financial summary, a labour schedule and a food costs schedule."
Published by: The Caterer